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Printed: 18/07/2024
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Last updated: 11/12/2020

How we work with tamariki and rangatahi who are missing or whose absence is unauthorised

There are triggers and risk factors that can signal that tamariki and rangatahi may be considering running away. This guidance may help us deal with this situation.

Upcoming changes for this guidance

This content will be strengthened so it more completely reflects our commitment to practice framed by te Tiriti o Waitangi, based on a mana-enhancing paradigm for practice, and drawing from ​Te Ao Māori principles of oranga to support mana tamaiti, whakapapa and whanaungatanga. We each need to consider how we can apply these principles to our practice when reading this guidance. The following resources provide support:
Practice for working effectively with Māori
Our practice approach

Hearing what tamariki and rangatahi have to say

Tamariki and rangatahi may return more quickly after running away and do so less often if we develop a good relationship with them and create the right environment. We have talked with rangatahi who have care or youth justice experience about what we can do to help – their views influenced this guidance.

The policy outlines the process on what to do if a tamaiti or rangatahi is absent from their usual care arrangement.

Policy: Working with tamariki and rangatahi who are missing, or whose absence is unauthorised

What is absconding

Section 385(1) of the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989 defines absconding as:

  • leaving or being taken from a residence without authority
  • leaving or being taken from a placement or the care of a caregiver without authority
  • refusing or neglecting to return to the residence or placement.

Children and young persons who abscond — section 385(1) of Oranga Tamariki Act 1989

What is ‘unauthorised absence’ or ‘missing’

Although absconding is the legal term, in practice we usually use absconding when referring to rangatahi in a youth justice placement. We more commonly refer to: 

  1. an unauthorised absence – this is when a tamaiti or rangatahi leaves their usual care arrangement without permission (including when they neglect or refuse to return) and their location is known or quickly established
  2. being missing – this is when the whereabouts of a tamaiti or rangatahi is unknown, they can’t be contacted and no-one significant to them knows where they are (they are considered missing until they are located, and their safety and wellbeing is established).

When a tamaiti or rangatahi is in the custody of the chief executive, the chief executive has the power to place them and the power to return them to their usual care arrangement. We have a responsibility to know where every tamaiti and rangatahi in our care is and that they are safe.

Reasons and risks

For tamariki and rangatahi who have experienced trauma (including cumulative harm), running away or refusing to return can be one way of communicating their feelings or exercising their power, particularly in situations where they feel that they may have limited influence in the things that are happening to them. We want to ensure that they do not feel that is the only way to express their feelings by supporting them to communicate in safe and appropriate ways.

Staff resource: Trauma-informed theory

When tamariki or rangatahi leave or refuse to return, there is an increased risk to their safety and wellbeing, and in some cases, there may also be an increased risk that they may harm others.

Creating the right environment

We need to understand potential risk factors and triggers, and the impact of loss and trauma, so we can respond to their needs appropriately and put in place the right supports at the right time.

Potential risk factors include:

  • a history of running away
  • mental health issues including distress, depression, self-harm tendencies or known suicidal thoughts
  • cognitive ability, social maturity
  • unmet disability support needs, including developmental needs
  • historical risk-taking behaviours, including use of drugs or alcohol, prostitution, living on the streets or living with inappropriate people, associating with a negative peer group.

Potential triggers may include:

  • recent stressors, including offending, court appearances, family group conferences, a change in care arrangement, death (including suicide), loss or experiencing a sense of rejection
  • an argument or upset in the home or other environment such as school
  • engaging in risk-taking behaviour, such as use of drugs or alcohol, prostitution, association with a negative peer group
  • coming out about their sexual identity and being concerned about the response of significant others
  • relationship changes
  • being bullied
  • being abused, re-abused or otherwise harmed
  • being concerned about a family member (particularly siblings) from whom they might be separated
  • significant pending changes that will impact on them (such as changing care arrangements)
  • pregnancy
  • not feeling that the rules of the home are fair or justified.

Potential signs may include:

  • any out-of-character behaviour
  • threatening to run away
  • saving or taking money, or valuable items might disappear from the house
  • being particularly secretive
  • pushing the boundaries in terms of staying away from their usual care arrangement longer than has been agreed to.

In order to feel secure and settled in their care arrangements, and prevent the likelihood of a tamaiti or rangatahi from running away, they need to:

  • feel accepted
  • feel safe and connected
  • feel listened to and heard
  • feel free to express their views and challenge decisions they don’t agree with
  • experience understanding and support when they have made mistakes
  • know what the rules are where they will be staying so there are no surprises and they know what to expect and understand the consequences of decisions.

It is important that tamariki and rangatahi are involved in decisions that affect them and are given the best possible opportunity to adjust if things need to change. When things change, we need to discuss it with them, consult them and consider how they’ll feel and the impact it has on them. This will reduce the likelihood of tamariki and rangatahi feeling that they need to take control of the situation themselves by running away.

Understanding tamariki and rangatahi

Tamariki and rangatahi need their social worker and caregiver to spend time getting to know them, including their whakapapa, the relationships that matter to them and the things that might cause strong reactions (their triggers). One way to do this is to involve tamariki and rangatahi in the development of their All About Me plan. The All About Me plan can become a reference to:

  • help create the right environment for te tamaiti or rangatahi to thrive in
  • identify and manage risk factors and triggers for te tamaiti or rangatahi
  • identify potential places te tamaiti or rangatahi could go if they are absent.

All About Me plan to meet the needs of tamariki

When a tamaiti or rangatahi is new to a care arrangement and they are known to leave or refuse to return, it is a good idea to talk to them about letting their social worker or their caregiver know if they are feeling upset or worried, or if they are feeling as though they might leave.

It’s also important to talk about what to do and what will happen if they run away so we can ensure when this occurs:

  • they are as safe as possible
  • their whānau or family, caregiver, social worker and significant others are as informed as possible about where they might be and how best to contact them
  • they know how to get hold of the help and assistance they need.

During — what we do when tamariki and rangatahi are missing or their absence is unauthorised

We have a responsibility to know where tamariki and rangatahi are at all times. We need to respond to any incident of them going missing or their absence being unauthorised seriously and as soon as possible.

Policy: Working with tamariki and rangatahi whether they are missing, or their absence is unauthorised

Social workers and caregivers should:

  • do everything possible to find tamariki and rangatahi (phoning and texting, considering and then making contact with or visiting people they know, who they might be with, places they like to go, activities they enjoy and their support people – consider what you know about them, what they might think or do, and why
  • be empathetic, compassionate and understanding, rather than angry, frustrated and punitive — when tamariki and rangatahi feel genuinely cared about, they feel less anxious about returning and facing the consequences, and more inclined to talk
  • talk to the other tamariki or rangatahi in the same care arrangement about:
    • how they’re feeling, the impact that te tamaiti or rangatahi being absent is having on them, and how we can support them
    • whether they have any ideas about what’s happening for te tamaiti or rangatahi, and why they think they’re absent
  • keep talking to local Police about other creative ways they can work together – this would include when considering using media or social media to help find te tamaiti or rangatahi.

If we are unable to connect with te tamaiti or rangatahi, we should talk to their whānau or family and other significant supports about:

  • how to connect with te tamaiti or rangatahi and return them to their care arrangement
  • their views on what’s happening, what’s needed from us and what we can do better or differently to ensure te tamaiti or rangatahi doesn’t feel that leaving is the only answer.

We need to continue to do these tasks and reflect on what we know about te tamaiti or rangatahi until they are located.

After — how we work with tamariki and rangatahi when they are found

We need to understand what led to the absence of te tamaiti or rangatahi. It is only when we understand what is or has been happening for them, their wishes and feelings, the risk factors and their triggers, that we can make changes, put in place the supports needed and respond appropriately to their triggers so that they are less likely to be absent in the future.

When te tamaiti or rangatahi is found, we need to provide the time and space to hear what they have to say so we can understand:

  • what led to their absence?
    • what was the trigger?
    • what were they trying to communicate?
  • how we can work together to prevent them from being absent in the future
    • what supports can we offer?
    • what can we do differently?
  • how can we create safety?
    • understanding their relationships and networks.

We need to consider working in partnership with someone else that te tamaiti or rangatahi may prefer to talk to in their support network. When this information is gathered, we should plan with te tamaiti or rangatahi, their whānau or family, caregivers and significant others:

  • how to reduce the risk of them running away in the future
  • how te tamaiti or rangatahi can keep themselves as safe as possible and keep everyone concerned as informed as possible about where they might be and how best to contact them.

We need to record any changes to the plan of te tamaiti or rangatahi in their All About Me plan.

All About Me plan to meet the needs of tamariki and rangatahi

Tamariki and rangatahi need social workers and caregivers to:

  • be mindful of the way they engage and talk with them
  • understand that they will often be feeling scared and worried that they will be blamed for leaving
  • focus on how they are feeling, and not just the behaviour
  • understand that if they feel that the consequences for running away are too harsh, they are likely to leave again
  • understand that sometimes they may react impulsively, but they just need space to clear their head and process their feelings
  • see this is an opportunity to understand if te tamaiti has needs that might need to be responded to in a different way
  • consider making someone else available for them to talk to, someone who can act as an advocate if they feel uncomfortable talking to their social worker — sometimes it’s hard to talk to their caregiver and social worker if they are part of the reason for leaving.

Supporting the caregiver

When a tamaiti or rangatahi runs away or won’t agree to return to their placement, particularly if they are doing so regularly, the social worker and the caregiver social worker should work together to consider whether the caregiver requires additional support. This might be for capability development to prevent future absences, or support for the emotional impact of the behaviour, or both. Support may also be needed in regard to other tamariki who are being cared for by the caregiver.

It is important that the caregiver understands that tamariki and rangatahi need stability and consistency in their lives, and, that, if appropriate, they will be welcomed back to their care arrangement.

It is important to give the caregiver an opportunity to share what has been happening in the home from their perspective, so that they can share their views and experiences and what supports they feel are needed.

In consultation with the caregiver social worker we need to update the caregiver support plan and make sure that it is well aligned with the tamariki All About Me plan.